Joe Rettenmaier, a student in Leadership Studies Signature Course of our MDiv program, offered this reflection to fellow students, faculty, and staff during the MLK service at Meadville Lombard. His was the second of four reflections on Dr. King's "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon. 

Rev. Dr. King goes on to say:

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive.  And that's where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct…. If it isn't harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. Have you ever heard people that—you know, and I'm sure you've met them—that really become sickening because they just sit up all the time talking about themselves. And they just boast and boast and boast, and that's the person who has not harnessed the drum major instinct.

And then the final great tragedy … is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct.

Thank you, Rev. Dr. King, for these words preached just days before you were taken from us.

Can you imagine all the years of anguish, and revelation, and hatred he had endured, leading up to this sermon? All the world leaders he had had to listen to by then, along with all the painfully oppressed, all the adversaries… Having to find love within himself, to survive the self-centeredness of people above him, people beside him, people who were the very engineers of the hateful state…

Rev. Dr. King’s words ring true to our seminary ears, don’t they, friends. This final charge he was able to make to us is now alive in this moment. So, ask yourselves, with pastoral fullness: Are you harnessing your drum major instinct? 

How blessed we all are to be gathered at this moment—so safe, in this beautiful place. So many personal demands we’ve rearranged so we can converge here and learn to become practitioners of the holy. It’s a kind of “Brigadoon of Greater Good” that only appears a few times a year, isn’t it? Every one of us makes it manifest, so why squander it by allowing our drum major instincts to wield influence? What if, instead, we chose to replace boastfulness with reverence for one another?

For the rest of this week, friends, in honor of the Reverend Doctor, can you lay down the batons of righteousness? Can we choose to honor the sermon of our beloved prophet Dr. King? 

Well, in the spirit of Rev. Darrick Jackson, I say “Yes! And…”

Say that with me, would you? Yes! And… 

Let us spend this final week [of January Intensives] not pushing one another down but lifting one another UP.  Yes! And…

Let us focus on the principles Dr. King devoted his life to: 

LOVE, in the form of mutually open ears. Yes! And…

EQUITY, in asking a classmate, “What do YOU think?” Yes! And…

JUSTICE, in lifting up their response with a “You go!”  Yes! And…


No drum major needed.

Joe Rettenmaier

MDiv Student

Joe Rettenmaier is in Leadership Studies Signature Course, the final year of our MDiv program. Joe has lived in the Pacific Northwest for 30 years, where his faith in sustainable living for all has found and fueled fellowship.